Ok, so three posts into this and we’re finally ready to whip out the hex paper! First question is, how big should our map be?
We want lots of room for exploration, clearly. If you’re running an "open table" sort of game, as West Marches is, where you’ll have lots of groups running around, you’ll want both lots of room to explore and multiple directions to explore at a time.
(The actual, hex-less West Marches game was probably a lot smaller than this, since Mr. Robbins encouraged navigation by landmarks. That sort of play encourages a much more intimate knowledge of the terrain than a hex map will usually give you, and six miles is a huge distance if your landmarks are things like unusual rock formations, big trees, or sinkholes.)
Just to pick a dimension at random, saying that our map takes a full month of travel to cross from one end to the other sounds good, yes? Since we’ll want a wide array of terrain types, let’s say we can expect people to move at an average pace of 12 miles per day. That comes to a map that’s 360 miles (30 days x 12 miles) across. If we simply square that, we’ve got an area of 129,600 square miles.
a hint more than 150% the size of Great Britain. That should be more than big enough to give us all the adventure we need, at least for the first few levels.
360 miles is 60 hexes (360 miles / 6 miles-per-hex). We’ll start a bit bigger than that, since we don’t want to just create a simple, square plain. I also want a bit of a border because I’m going to draw an island.
“Here Am I, Your Special Island”
Why an island? Islands work great for hex-crawling games. First, they give the area of play a solid and unequivocal boundary in the sea. When the PCs reach the ocean, the players know they’ve reached the edge of the map. At the same time, it’s not an insurmountable barrier; players can buy boats and sail outward to new lands if they get tired of the starting area (or if it gets too dangerous for them).
Plus, I never did get around to adding anything to the Seas of Os’r project, so...
The other option is rocky and that usually means jagged, like the fjords of Finland or Denmark, though it can mean smooth, like the cliffs of Dover. In either case, you’re likely to end up with lots of little islands off the coast, but not the long, delicate barrier islands of a soft coast.
Since I’m going with an island, I’m thinking volcanoes. And I’m thinking tropical, too, because I’m kinda on a tropical kick just lately. So we’ll start with something a bit softer, like Hawaii and its collection of shield volcanoes. Saving the volcanoes for later, here’s the coastline.
Just one big island. Why? Because we want the coastline to signal to the players, “Hey, this is the edge of the map.” We want to encourage them to explore the island as much as possible before they hop on a boat and head for the horizon. Still, dividing our island into clearly recognizable sections is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. We’ll do that next week as we swing to the other extreme, jumping from sea level to maximum elevation when we place our volcanoes and mountains.
UK map from the CIA's World Factbook. Satellite image of Padre Island, TX from these folks. They have lots of great pics of geological formations of all kinds, so be sure to explore. My map was done in Hexographer to save y'all from having to decipher my pathetic chicken-scratches.